From edition

Lo-Fi Strum v. Techno Hum: The Antinomies of Conte

Christopher Breu

Two Snapshots:

1. Pale, pasty and sexy in a nerd-chic kinda way, the singer (avec ou sans band) stands at the front of the living room. His/her guitaris slung high–like in pictures of The Beatles c.1964–partly covering the argyle pattern on the front of his/her thrift-store cardigan. After some nervous and self-deprecating patter, he/she begins to sing a song–perhaps self-reflexive love song, perhaps a deliciously perverse one, or perhaps just an unabashedly sweet one–or perhaps the song advances a social critique: of contemporary capitalism, of the commodification of everyday life or the indie scene itself–or perhaps the song is more absurd, a postmodern pastiche of dadaist and surrealist commitments to non-sense and the language of the unconscious. Half expectant, half blasé, the small audience stands in hushed and unmoving silence, their thrift-store clad white (for almost all of them are) bodies doing nothing to indicate being moved by the music. Even as the music reaches cathartic intensity, this stillness is broken by nothing but the occasional head nod or mysterious smile. Huddled together in some scenester’s thrashed living room, the audience members seem curiously isolate–nobody touches, few talk. Yet they are intent on the music in their own way and when the hat is passed for gas money and a little remuneration, they are generous. In sum, the snapshot is simultaneously a picture and parody of the political possibilities of contemporary popular culture.

2. Responding to the collective high that he (for it is, unfortunately, still most often a he) has, in turn, helped produce, the DJ thrusts his hand into the air, pumping a fist to the swirling, acid-soaked buzz floating on top of the punishing subterranean thud of the rhythm. Writhing ecstatically to the pulsing bass and skittering snares, the dancers gyrate with individual idiosyncrasy and collective will–the delirious repetition, mixed perhaps with a tab or two of e, pushes them beyond their everyday, monadic, workaday consciousnesses toward some sort of collective epiphany. But what exactly this collective epiphany is remains in question. Perhaps some of the dancers experience a connection not only with the other dancers on the floor but with ravers and technokids world-wide (since this is a truly global scene), the more historically-minded perhaps feel a sense of political solidarity with the queer, black futurism and desperate utopianism of the first-wave Chicago and Detroit pioneers (as well as with the rasta/dub, funk and hip hop political cultures that preceded them), and perhaps some of them, noting the way in which the virus-like proliferation of techno’s subgenres mirrors the movements of money and goods in late capitalism, are thinking of possible further alliances between technoculture and .com capitalism. The crowd’s designer Adidas (or is it Nike?) sports gear becomes slick with sweat as bodies rub against bodies. Parts of the crowd coagulate, as groups of two, three, and four form erotic cells: black men kissing white women, Asian men caressing black men, a Latina forms a threesome with a black woman and a white man. Butches and femmes, tops and bottoms, boys, girls, transmen, transwomen – the crowd swirls with erotic possibility. Yet the kissing and touching is more sensual than it is sexual–part allegiance to a collective, and potentially political, sensual experience and part autoerotic pleasure designed to augment one’s narcissistic identity performance. As the warehouse doors open upon the early morning, the dancers spill out and go their separate ways-the boundaries that seemed to waver and disappear for a few precious hours on the dance floor are palpable again in the crisp morning air–but perhaps they do flicker a little more insubstantially now. In sum, the snapshot is simultaneously a picture and parody of the political possibilities of
contemporary popular culture.

                         * * *

While it may seem dangerously postmodern to collapse the visual performance of a subculture with its inner essence (or, to recast it more properly in the language of postmodernism, to suggest that the latter is merely a truth-effect of the former), the twin postmodern subcultures of indie-rock and techno dance culture invite just such a collapse.   And indeed, the snapshots that I begin with can be read, in part, as synecdoches for the larger political, artistic and cultural contradictions that organize the two subcultures as sites of cultural production and consumption. The synecdochal function of these visual images represents more than just a final reduction of the political, artistic and cultural to the stylistic or performative; it also suggests that the political possibilities represented by contemporary musical forms reside more in the communities they enable, even if these communities are organized around consumption, than the work-of-art considered as an isolated or autonomous object. This shift in cultural meaning from autonomous artwork to subcultural community is an ambiguous one and should be viewed, to borrow a phrase from Fredric Jameson, with the “properly ambivalent” critical stance attendant upon leftist critics when theorizing shifts within the cultural logic of capitalism. While on one level, the shift represents an unfortunate movement from aesthetic and cultural practices centered around production to ones ordered around consumption, on another level it represents a restoration of the possibilities of community and public culture to modernism’s largely privatized understanding of the isolated or autonomous art object.

In the analysis to follow, I will focus on the political possibilities and limitations embedded in the music produced by and for these two subcultures. In doing so, my analysis, with its focus on specific, isolated musical texts, may seem to be anachronistically modernist. However, I would like to think that my focus represents a kind of “strategic modernism,” enabling me to use the tools of textual analysis in order to suggest the ways in which the music I examine points toward the political limitations and possibilities of the subcultural communities with which it is linked. My ability to move from text to context and back again depends upon the synecdochal logic of postmodern community formation itself. Both advocates and critics of postmodern aesthetics have generally privileged metonymy as its defining trope-in contrast to the unifying metaphorics of the modernist work, the postmodern text privileges a nomadic and anti-essentialist aesthetics of metonymy.    While the privileging of metonymy as the master-trope of postmodernism makes sense on the level of aesthetic practices, in terms of community formation-especially of the types of community that have been engendered by that most postmodern of political forms, identity politics-a specific form of metonymy, i.e. synecdoche, seems more apt. As Kristin Ross has pointed out, postmodern identity claims are often organized around a synecdochal logic of substituting the part for the whole. In its most problematic formation this logic produces forms of tokenism, in which one individual is supposed to stand in for a community as a whole; in other formations-ones that have more political promise-the logic produces serialized sites of localized collective endeavor, in which a given local community or collectivity organizes and acts on behalf of a whole, actions that are either affirmed and reduplicated or challenged by other such communities.
It is this latter mode of community formation that I see operative in the subcultures of indie-rock and electronic dance culture. In analyzing the political potential and limitations embedded in certain electronica and indie-rock recordings, I will, in part, be attending to the way in which these possibilities and limitations are either synecdochally embodied by the subcultures, or alternately represent synecdochal embodiments in music of tensions already present
within the subcultures themselves. Yet I will also attend to the ways in which music and subculture become disjoined, one (in this case music) pointing toward possibilities not yet recognized by the other. Thus, subculture and music become mirror images of each other; yet like the famous looking glass of Lacan’s mirror-stage, the reflection is also a constitutive misrecognition, one whose meaning can only be gleaned by theorizing what is not visible in the mirror…

The global technology gap is only the most recent of a series of ever widening economic and social divides that define life under late capitalism.    The most progressive tendencies in popular music over the last ten years-electronica and indie-rock-have symptomatically organized themselves on either side of this gap: the former embracing all the tools of our new electronic age, from the most advanced techniques of musical synthesis, to sampling technology, to the use of digital recording techniques, to the ubiquitous use of the CD as a means of musical storage and distribution (not to mention commodification), and the latter resolutely resisting our digital age by employing analog and self-consciously anachronistic forms of technology, such as the four-track home recorder, pre-digital era instruments and the vinyl LP as a means of musical storage and distribution (not to mention commodification). Ironically, this split does not produce the cultural politics that one might expect from these two musical forms: rather than electronica being the exclusive and policed domain of the new silicon valley/alley elite (though it is certainly their music of choice), it actually has its roots in and maintains a vital, indeed populist, relationship with much broader and less privileged constituencies; indie-rock, in contrast, while seemingly more technologically accessible, remains the relatively exclusive, and quietly policed, province of a college-educated elite (though perhaps a terminally underemployed one).

This ironic reversal becomes more comprehensible when we situate the two forms of music geopolitically and historically. Both musics have their roots in a first world context: electronic dance music in the African-American ghettos of Detroit, Chicago and New York (though in terms of influences electronica expands beyond this first world context to embrace Jamaican dub and global funk and disco among other international currents) and indie-rock in myriad college towns and landlocked cities throughout the U.S. This first-world genesis suggests that the cultural politics associated with each form are less about absolute access to technology and more about specific situated relationships to technology and to the distribution of capital that underwrites such relationships. In the case of Detroit techno, it was, ironically, the use of outmoded (and therefore affordable) equipment that produced its distinctive sound and aesthetic. Moreover, the electronic revolution, assuming one has access to its basic products (even if they are outmoded), actually cheapens the cost of independently recording, producing and distributing music. For the many on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder in the .comiserated landscape of the contemporary United States, then, techno has its advantages as a site of popular allegiance, advantages that are redoubled by its popular roots and its formal investments in a recycled aesthetic, in which, as in hip hop, commodities and sounds that are a defining part of everyday life in working-class urban spaces become reutilized and redeployed as part of a transformed sonic landscape.   

The libidinal politics favored by the electronica aesthetic also open the form up to a wide range of popular investments, investments that have the potential to build alliances across cultural borders that are usually marked as discrete or taboo. In contrast to indie-rock’s investments in an aesthetic of purity (even as most indie-scenes are proqueer and profeminist in political outlook), electronica proclaims itself as proudly and willfully hybrid. This will to hybridity often translates on the dance floor to a polymorphous eroticism, one that has the potential to build popular alliances across differently situated communities of desire. Of course, this tendency towards hybridity and inclusion also mirrors the virus-like movements of capital in the postmodern era and what looks like inclusion from one angle can look like appropriation or commodification from another.

The shift from politicized inclusion to depoliticized appropriation can be demonstrated by contrasting Derrick May’s 1992 Detroit classic, “Icon,” a track influential to the trance aesthetic, to “Sun” by Ambush (one of the many monikers for well-known trance artist Oliver Lieb). May’s cut draws upon African polyrhythms, the electronic futurism of groups like Kraftwork and New Order, the classical minimalism of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, and the black science fiction aesthetic of Sun Ra and Parliament/Funkadelic in order to construct a song that draws upon the historic continuities, transformations and syncretisms that characterize the black diasporic experience. May draws upon these continuities and syncretisms to mournfully comment on the dispossession of present (suggested by the elegiac initial theme produced by a sometimes blurring wash of electronic strings), indicate its links to the 400+ year history of racism and exploitation in the Americas (a history metonymically encoded by May’s synthesis of historically diverse musical forms) and construct the image of a pan-African utopian tomorrow (indicated by the emergence of the electronic polyrhythms and the emergence of an optimistic second theme). In contrast to the historically and politically specific syncretisms of May’s “Icon,” Lieb’s “Sun,” like much of the music emerging under the trance moniker, mixes various forms of “indigenous” music from at least two separate continents (Africa and Australia) and historical contexts to construct a dehistoricized and unlocatable neoprimitivist electronic fantasy. While Lieb strives for “authenticity” (in an interview he claims that he labored over the drum sounds meticulously in order to produce the sound of “authentic” drumming), this authenticity is a primitivist fantasy, one that constructs a generalized image of the vanishing ethnic other for appropriation and consumption by trance’s largely white fan base. May, on the other hand, overtly marks the futurism of his music and conception of racial identity (the African drum patterns are clearly electronic) and thus indicates not only the specificity and difference of the past but also the possibilities of positively racialized tomorrows.
The logic of appropriation that organizes a cut like “Sun” parallels the appropriative logic that undergirds .com capitalism itself. It is no surprise that electronica holds its seductions for the new economic elite. It is one of the distinctive features of the new .com bourgeoisie that rather than striving towards traditional conceptions of class privilege, with their well policed cultural and social barriers, they strive remorselessly after street cred. Indeed, one of the seductions of this latest twist in the political economy of late capitalism is the way in which it offers the possibility of having street cred and eating it too (eating quite well off of it, one might add-in contrast to the workers in various electronic parts factories, who eat somewhat less well). Of course, the realization of this utopian promise is bought at a price (one in addition to the material costs mentioned in the last sentence): the relentless commodification and depoliticization of every last pocket of what used to be various forms of bohemian counter-culture. In this regard, electronica, while it keeps one foot in the camp of the counter-cultural, seems all too amenable to the new .com capitalist order, an amenability that is nowhere more evident than in the use of electronica as the new soundtrack of choice for Madison Avenue. Drum-n-bass, techno and trip-hop soundscapes abound in televisio
n advertising, helping to pitch everything from the new V.W. Bug to running shoes to soft drinks. This amenability is also evident on the level of form, forming an intrinsic, as well as an extrinsic aspect of the electronica aesthetic. It is evident in the way in which the global movements, appropriations, transformations and proliferations of various electronic subgenres (no other musical form subdivides and recombines half as quickly) mimic the global flow of capital, the flexibility of production, and the specialization of goods and services in late capitalism.    It is also evident in the packaging of electronic music. While on one level, the anonymity preferred by various electronic artists appears resistant to the superstar spectacle that fuels much contemporary pop, on another level it situates them as the equivalent of the faceless and ubiquitous multinational, the multiple pseudonyms preferred by drum-n-bass and techno artists forming the equivalent of various subsidiary holdings. This effect is reinforced by the abstract visual icons preferred by many electronic artists, which resemble nothing so much as corporate logos (this tendency reaches absurd proportions in a recent Source Direct EP in which the production team’s icon appears in marble and steel, a more conservative and corporate look than is even favored by most contemporary multinationals).

The lo-fi aesthetics of indie-rock, on the other hand, are designed to mark, indeed proclaim, their distance from capital-and-technology-intensive forms of musical production and commodification. From the use of outmoded recording equipment (such as the 4-track recorder and the moog keyboard) through the embrace of poor, or intentionally detuned equipment to a d.i.y. ethic to the allegiance to small, independently owned labels (hence the name), indie-rock works overtime to distinguish itself from the “state-of-the-art” musical product released on major labels.    In this it is largely successful, and not merely on the aesthetic level. While on one level the production and distribution techniques of indie-rock merely repeat those of the earlier, entrepreneurial stage of capitalism, on another level they mount a serious challenge to the relentless commodification of artistic endeavor in .com capitalism. By resisting, albeit generally through recourse to older forms of capitalist production, the absolute conflation of art and commerce that characterizes contemporary forms of musical product, indie-rock opens up a space for the possibility of autonomous musical production and political critique. A song like Pavement’s “Cut Your Hair,” for example, embodies both forms of autonomy: it appropriates and parodies grunge-rock production values, mixing them with the sonic stutters and detuned guitars that characterize their indie aesthetic, while advancing a forceful critique (one that also auto-critically implicates Pavement itself) of the transformation of music into fashion and commerce heralded by the grunge revolution.

This autonomy is bought at a price, however. This price is twofold. First, indie rock can only achieve its autonomy by removing itself from the general economy, thereby giving up the possibility of producing broad economic changes. In place of a politics of large-scale transformation (the only politics that could conceivably impact upon our global world-order), what emerges from indie production practices is a politics of localized conservation. Second, this politics of localized conservation (like all such politics) is organized around a fantasy of purity, one that produces a form of popular culture obsessed with the policing of aesthetic, economic and cultural borders. On a musical level this fantasy of purity is thematized in the proliferation of songs about incest (for example the Palace Brothers’ “Riding” or Sebadoh’s “Perverted Word”), which I read as the fantasy of avoiding exogamy, as well as songs such as Pavement’s “Two States” and “Unfair” that find political solutions in the creation (and implicitly the policing) of new borders.    As my use of the metaphor of “policing” suggests, this fantasy of purity ironically reproduces the conservative cultural logic organizing most forms of nationalist sentiment and the nation-state itself under late capitalism-a cultural logic to which most forms of indie-rock are ostensibly opposed. The crypto-nationalism of contemporary indie-rock is most visible in the resolutely U.S.-centered locus of its production. In contrast to the polyglot internationalism of electronica (here, one thinks of the drum-n-bass-cum-Bollywood hybrids of artists like Talvin Singh and the Asian Dub Foundation-who weld their polyglot aesthetic to a fiercely articulated socialist and Thrid-Worldist political agenda-or the international Euro-Caribbean dub aesthetic of production teams such as Rockers Hi-Fi and Kruder and Dorfmeister), indie-rock remains resolutely nationalist in scope. In this regard, it is striking to note that much of the most interesting indie-rock of the last decade emerges from landlocked or relatively homogenous U.S. locales such as Chicago, Louisville, Chapel Hill and Olympia. This fantasy of purity is equally evident in the exclusivity that defines most local indie scenes, an exclusivity that is overtly predicated on musical knowledge and label-affiliation, but often times becomes implicitly racialized and class-marked as well. In contrast to the multicultural cosmopolitanism and inclusive utopianism that defines global electronic dance culture, the indie scene is predicated on a sense of aesthetic superiority, one that is dependent upon a logic of exclusion. This exclusionary perspective delimits the demographic makeup of the indie scene, restricting it primarily to the college-educated. The racialization of indie music as white, mixes with these class-based and aesthetic boundaries to produce a scene that is overwhelmingly white in its racial composition.
At first glance the lo-fi aesthetic of the indie scene offers itself up as a site of democratic access and possibility. And in some scenes, especially when it mixes with a punk street culture, this possibility is indeed realized (here one thinks especially of the democratic political cultures that form around a socialist band like Fugazi or a feminist one like Bikini Kill). More often than not, however, the lo-fi aesthetic marks the privilege of not having to have an immediate relationship to contemporary technology and the marketplace. It is an aesthetic, in other words, that is predicated on a kind of privileged amateurism. Like the gentleman detective solving cases for the sheer intellectual pleasure of unraveling the mystery, the indie scenester or musician approaches music from the standpoint of sheer aesthetic pleasure. This l’art pour l’art approach does manage to create a space for autonomous artistic production of the first order (for example it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine albums as difficultly brilliant as Olivia Tremor Control’s Black Foliage V.1, Sebadoh’s Weed Forestin’, or Godspeed You Black Emperor’s !xxxf#a8xxx, ever seeing the light of day on a major label). For this reason alone, then, the indie aesthetic justifies itself. However, if it wants, as it sometimes claims, to move beyond this l’art pour l’art position and transform itself into a political aesthetic, then indie as a genre must move outside of the safe autonomy of its artistic and nationalist niches and engage with the global-scope and libidnal/cultural inclusiveness of its dialectical opposite: electronica. Similarly, if electronica wants to move beyond the consumerist complacency and market logic that limits its most utopian and political aspirations, it must take its cue from indie-rock’s hard-won anti-corporate praxis.
The antinomy represented by these two forms of cultural production is not unique to contemporary music. Instead, it is perhaps one of the clearest postmodern embodiments of a theoretical antinomy that has been haunting leftist thought for much of the last hundred years or so and which has found its most compel
ling recent articulation in the opposing theoretical formulations of the Frankfurt School and the broad-based Cultural Studies movement. As with the opposition between indie-rock and electronica, this antinomy organizes itself around the relationships among cultural production, technology and the commodity form. Indie-rock can be read as a postmodern embodiment of many of the Frankfurt School’s late-modernist principles, including a conception of the aesthetic realm as properly autonomous and removed from the market, the valorization of the aesthetic as a privileged domain of cultural and political knowledge, a generally negative view of technological advancement (at least as long as it is linked with capitalist development), a relative valorization of the entrepreneurial stage of capitalism over both the monopoly and the multinational stages, a generalized contempt for the commodified products of mass culture and libidinal imaginary organized around fantasies of purity.    Indie-rock’s translation of these modernist principles into a postmodern aesthetic is not only evident (as I have already discussed) in the way in which the Frankfurt School’s focus on the work of art has shifted to the focus on the construction of community, but also in the way in which the aesthetic principles of Adorno and others have been championed in a medium that Adorno himself would have declared allegiance to Stalin before endorsing: i.e. contemporary rock-n-roll. Electronica, in contrast, adheres in large part, to a number of the central theoretical and political postulates advanced by Cultural Studies in the last twenty five years: the valorization of the ambient or everyday over the rarified or aesthetic; the privileging of popular or mass culture as the domain of cultural and political knowledge; an embrace of contemporary technology (no matter how intertwined with capital); and a libidinal economy organized around hybridity and difference.    In this latter aspect, in its embrace of the forward movements of technology and capital and in its deployment of the metaphorics of fluidity, (evident in the clichés of the electronica video, with its obligatory underwater scenes and liquid movements from innerspace to cyberspace to outerspace) electronica also allies itself with the Freudo-Niezschean-Marxist hybrids of Deleuze and Guattari. (It is not suprising, then, to find D&G to be the privileged theorists of music’s avant-garde wing, from DJ Spooky (a.k.a. Paul D. Miller) who peppers his liner notes with quotations from the post-structuralist dynamic duo to the Mille Plateaux label, which merely takes as its own the name of D&G’s second mangnum opus.)
While in the theoretical world the opposition between advocates of the Frankfurt School and those of Cultural Studies has seemingly hardened into an increasingly arid stalemate, in which the two camps refuse to communicate or recognize that they could learn from each other, in the world of contemporary music there are signs that the parallel opposition between indie-rock and electronica is beginning to break down. The breakdown (and redialecticization) of this antinomy holds promise not only for contemporary music, but also potentially for the revitalization of cultural theory and, most importantly, the formation of more politically oriented and politically effective (sub)cultural communities. Much of the most interesting and politically engaged music that has emerged in the last three or four years or so has seemed to combine elements from both sides of the electronica/indie rock divide. This is evident in everything from the emergence of the “glitch” and electroacoustic wing of the electronica avant-garde to the increasingly interesting jazz-electronics-classical-rock hybrids of the Chicago postrock/postjazz scene to the most recent Stereolab and Sonic Youth albums.    The glitch school of contemporary electronica, associated with artists such as Oval, Kit Clayton and Pole and labels such as Mille Plateaux, Basic Channel/Chain Reaction and ~scape, draws upon indie-rock’s challenge to the smooth seamless surface and immaculate production values of contemporary pop and electronic musics to produce a music made up of various electronic and sonic misfires, glitches and malfunctionings, such as the sound of a CD skipping, or the hiss or clicks and pops associated with vinyl and removed from vinyl-to-CD transfers during remastering processes. In contrast to the seamless fusion that can characterize the relationship between electronica and the logic of late capitalism, these glitch artists’ emphasis on seams, cracks, fissures and misfirings suggest the potential sites for resistance, disruption and revolutionary transformation that form within the cybernetic logic of .com capitalism itself.    A similar and more overtly political challenge to electronica and capitalist hegemony is produced by electroacoustic artists such as Ultra-red and Terre Thaemlitz, whose edgy, disturbing electronica incorporates field recordings and found sounds from such politicized spaces such as L.A.’s Griffith Park (an embattled public sex site for gay men of color) and the U.S.-Mexico Maquiladora zone, where hyperexploited sweat shop workers in Sanyo, Pioneer, Panasonic, JVC and Casio factories produce the technology through which first-world consumers enjoy their state-of-the-art pop and electronic music. These artists not only intransigently refuse to straightforwardly reproduce the allure of the electronic commodity, instead revealing at what price such commodities come, but in their liner notes also point towards modes of political action-such as international unionization and queer activism-that can resist the violence of contemporary forms of exploitation and oppression.

A similar political impetus informs the most recent recording by indie stalwarts, Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth has long worked to push beyond the boundaries of its indie constituency in ways good-championing free jazz and avant-classical artists such as Sun Ra and John Cage, touring with rap-firebrands Public Enemy, metalheads Anthrax and classic rock iconoclast, Neil Young-and bad-signing on to David Geffin’s DGC label (which, however, has enabled the financial solvency to support other avant-garde performers and to release their most uncompromising music on their own SYR label). Their most recent DGC record, NYC Ghosts and Flowers, represents one of their most impressive and successful attempts to push beyond the confines of the indie aesthetic. On a purely musical level the album represents the first fruits (at least officially) of Sonic Youth’s new lineup, which now includes electronic experimentalist and former Gastr Del Sol member, Jim O’Rourke. Without radically transforming it, O’Rourke pushes Sonic Youth’s own melodic atonality towards some of the sounds issuing out of the electronic avant-garde. The hybrid sound that emerges suggests a syncretic mixing of aesthetics and communities that does not compromise the sonic and cultural challenges embodied by each (in contrast to some of the experiments issuing from the Chicago underground, which can sometimes-though not at their thorny and compelling best-sound like the equivalent of musical purée). In contrast to the depoliticizing syncretism promoted by .com capitalism, in which the political and cultural specificity of distinct cultures and aesthetics becomes just so much market fodder, the syncretism represented by NYC Ghosts and Flowers can be paralleled to the successful building of political alliances along and across communities of difference.

This conception of community building is the explicit focus of the album’s lyrics, which form both a melancholic mediation on the ghosts of New York City past and a present call to arms against the privitizing and proto-police-state violence of Guliani’s postmodern New York. In contrast to the policing of space championed by indie cultural practices and by otherwise politically shrewd bands such as Pavement, Sonic Youth, in their references to police-brutality (“small flowers crack concrete / narcotic squads
sweep through poet dens / spilling coffee grabbing 15 yr old runaway girls / by frazzled ponytailed hair + tossing them / into backseats of cop cars / the narcs beat the bearded oracles / replacing tantric love with / complete violence”), contemporary jazz, hip-hop and activist culture and the Bohemian ghosts of New York’s past (including explicit references to Lenny Bruce and William Burroughs and what I read as implicit ones to Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and Allen Ginsburg), imagine a politics of resistance to the violence imposed by the policing of culture, bodies and private space and property in late capitalism. This imagined community of resistance and activism is built on a counter-history, linking cultures of bohemian resistance from the past to present day struggles against the urban manifestations of the violence of the neo-liberal new world order.
Moving beyond the antinomies of contemporary music, groups like Sonic Youth, Ultra-Red, Oval and in their own way Chicago post-rockers, Isotope 217, imagine a newly constituted sonic and cultural landscape, one that points towards the possibilities of constructing parallel counterhegemonic theoretical and political landscapes. On a theoretical level, the recombinant strategies of these groups should point towards recombinant theoretical strategies for addressing the political stakes of popular culture-strategies that can move beyond the stale theoretical antinomy between commodity celebrationism and the intransigent dismissal of all popular culture as commodified and thus politically retrograde while continuing to advance a rigorous materialist critique of late capitalism itself.

All these artists recognize the mutual imbrication of popular culture and commodity culture in late capitalism and all of them construct different strategies for challenging, criticizing or transforming this imbrication. As theorists of popular culture, we need to generate newly resistant and newly hybridized analytical tools and critical approaches in order to understand and further these strategies and the communities they imagine. On the level of political community formation, these groups imagine a transformation of the subcultural oppositions and fragmentations that currently structure the cultural landscape. In place of subcultural communities organized around fantasies of purity and practices of discrete, if sometimes disavowed, consumption, they suggest we need an intransigently hybridized (rather than passively hybridized by the logic of late capitalism) communities of cultural resistance, ones that work both within and against the logic of the commodity form itself to further collective struggles against the unequal, repressive and exploitative new world order that it underwrites.

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